Tensions will soon return to U.S.-Turkey relations - analysis

The outbreak of harmony between the United States and Turkey, which just carried out a joint military operation, is probably too good to last, the Financial Times said on Tuesday. 

U.S. and Turkish forces started joint patrols inside northeast Syria on Sunday as part of their plan to carve out a safe zone in the area to meet Ankara’s demand to create a buffer against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish militia that it sees as a threat.

Financial Times’ columnist David Gardner wondered about the political luck of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Gifted and mercurial, Mr Erdoğan, an ideological blend of neo-Islamism and national populism, is a great survivor,” said Gardner. “The joint U.S.-Turkish patrol must be counted a success, albeit provisional.”

Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel proxies have already occupied two formerly Kurdish enclaves in northwest Syria, and Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to invade the northeast, where the U.S.-allied People’s Protection Units (YPG) have led the fight against Islamic State (ISIS). 

In July, Turkey began receiving shipments of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, to which Washington responded by ejecting Turkey from its F-35 stealth fighter jet programme and considering further sanctions. 

“In theory, a NATO member buying from Moscow and breaking alliance solidarity should automatically have been punished under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” said Gardner. “Yet, despite episodic muttering by the U.S. Treasury and periodic broadsides from Congress, nothing has happened.”

Turkey has also been expecting a sizable U.S. fine after state-owned Halkbank was found to have broken sanctions on Iran, but that has not yet happened either, said Gardner. 

“But even at this fragile moment of apparent reconciliation, Mr. Erdoğan is his pugnacious self,” said Gardner, pointing out that the president on Sunday theorised that Washington was looking to create a safe zone for the YPG. 

Turkey is still upset at how the United States in 2015 withdrew its Patriot missile-defence batteries from southern Turkey, and believes the U.S. government was complicit in the 2016 coup attempt, according to Gardner. 

Meanwhile, Erdoğan needs Russian support to hold its ground in Syria, and erratic U.S. President Donald Trump is unlikely to suddenly adhere to a coherent policy in Syria, according to Gardner. 

“Messrs Erdoğan, Trump and Putin, so different in background, are soulmates in a sense: transactional, amoral, their egos focused on power,” said Gardner. “The battle for Turkey will help define which of them is the best geopolitical juggler.”